The White House on Thursday said the U.S. intelligence community believes that the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad have used chemical weapons. If that assessment is correct, it would cross a “red line” set by President Obama.
“Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin,” Miguel Rodriguez, director of the White House office of legislative affairs, wrote to senators on Thursday.
“We want to continue to investigate above and beyond those intelligence assessments,” the official said.
Senators from both parties, however, said they believed Syria had defied the United States, and they quickly called for the White House to take action.
“It is clear that ‘red lines’ have been crossed and action must be taken to prevent larger-scale use,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a statement, adding that the panel had been briefed on the situation.
The possibility that Assad has crossed the line set by Obama risks drawing the administration into a military conflict that it has tried to avoid thus far.
On the heels of two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, administration officials have expressed caution about the possibility of U.S. intervention escalating the situation in Syria, in addition to the more general concern about getting the United States mired in another Middle Eastern conflict.
The White House cited on Thursday intelligence failures ahead of the U.S. invasion in Iraq as one reason it needed to proceed with caution.
“Given our own history with intelligence assessments — including intelligence assessments related to weapons of mass destruction — it’s very important that we are able to establish this with certainty, and that we are able to present information that is airtight,” the White House official said.
Even the senators who have pushed hardest for U.S. intervention in Syria, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), say they don’t want boots on the ground.
But McCain and Graham, who have long called for U.S. intervention in Syria, said Thursday’s letter shows that it is time for the White House to ramp up its involvement.
“The president of the United States said that if Bashar Assad used chemical weapons it would be a game changer, that it would cross a red line. I think it’s pretty obvious that red line has been crossed,” McCain said.
McCain said that he wanted the White House to create a safe zone for the Syrian opposition, establish a no-fly zone and arm vetted rebel groups.
He also criticized the Obama administration and others who have cautioned against taking stronger action in Syria as the two-year civil war there has shown little signs of ending.
“Everything that the non-interventionists said would happen in Syria if we intervened has happened,” McCain said. “The jihadists are on the ascendency, there are chemical weapons being used and the massacres continue.”
Thursday’s response from the White House came after a bipartisan group of eight senators sent a letter to the president Wednesday asking him whether chemical weapons had been used.
The letter from the senators — which included the Democratic chairmen of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees — highlighted the pressure that is now coming from both parties in Congress for the Obama administration to do more in Syria.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Thursday that it was “past time for the president to have a robust conversation with the Congress and the American people about how best to bring Assad’s tyranny to an end.”
A no-fly zone “is something that should seriously be considered” by the White House following the latest assessment, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee told The Hill.
“Obviously it’s very serious and it proves once again that Assad will do anything to stay in power,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who has proposed legislation to arm vetted rebel groups.
Obama’s national security advisers last year overruled recommendations from the State and Defense departments to arm vetted rebels, out of concern the weapons could end up in the hands of Islamist groups opposed to the United States.
Instead, the administration has sent more than $400 million in humanitarian aid such as food and shelter for the conflict’s more than one million refugees over the past two years.
The administration has also doubled direct non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition and civil society groups, to $250 million.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday that the intelligence community’s conclusion that chemical weapons were used was made in the past 24 hours.
“We cannot confirm the origin of these weapons, but we do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime,” Hagel said during a trip to the United Arab Emirates. “It violates every convention of warfare.”
The White House said in its letter that the assessment was based in part on physiological samples.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that U.S. officials knew of two separate chemical weapons attacks, although the White House official declined to specify when those occurred.
In its letter to senators, the White House reiterated that “no options were off the table” to respond to the Assad government.
“The president means what he says when he sets that red line,” the White House official said.
— Jonathan Easley contributed to this report.
— Published at 11:53 a.m. and last updated at 8:47 p.m.